The Common Good
February 2004

Liberation Without War

by Jack DuVall | February 2004

Is there a nonviolent way to overthrow dictators and achieve democracy?

When the Romans imprisoned the apostle Paul and he was taken to be whipped, Paul asked his captors, "Is it lawful for you to whip a Roman citizen?" So a captain asked him: "Are you a Roman?" Paul answered, "Yes." The captain replied, "It took me a great deal of money to buy my freedom," showing skepticism that Paul—who probably looked like a penniless slave—was a Roman, and therefore free. Paul declared: "I was free born."

Represented in that exchange was a fundamental division in human thinking: between those who believe that only an external agency—money, personal influence, violence—can deliver people from oppression, and those who understand that each individual has the innate right to be free and the ability to become free.

Che Guevara, the violent revolutionary, once said: "I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves." Unfortunately, what the people can do to liberate themselves from tyranny or injustice has received far less attention than what terrorists, conquerors, or charismatic leaders have tried to do.

In many historical cases—such as the emancipation of American slaves during the Civil War, defeating Nazism in World War II, the Cold War with the Soviet Union—leaders saw no alternative to using or threatening military force against armed adversaries. When hostilities ended, relative freedom and peace ensued. And so armed might has been seen as the means of liberation.

When it became apparent in summer 2003 that stability in Iraq had not followed the military ouster of Saddam Hussein, some claimed that civil disorder always accompanied changes to democracy, citing the fall of Eastern European regimes in 1989. But no museums of antiquities were looted in Warsaw or Berlin when civilian-based movements brought down authoritarian governments, nor did chaos reign in Manila when Filipinos chased out a dictator three years before.

When nonviolent movements mobilize people to use strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other disruptive tactics—through a strategy to subvert an unjust regime’s power—democracy ensues more often than when violence is used. If we disregard the costs of regime change through terror or war, by not comparing them to the risks and opportunities of nonviolent conflict, then we are issuing a blank check to the belief that liberation is always violent.

Terrorists believe that power comes from killing—they are attached to that belief as strongly as many are to their religious beliefs. But even though many people believe that weapons have power, most people who want to fight for their rights or justice are more interested in winning than in being killed—and they will listen to proof that violence is less effective than other methods of struggle.

The logic is this: Those who threaten violence want something from those being threatened. That’s a transaction, and each party to a transaction has leverage. If you refuse to give me what I want, even if I threaten you with violence, I cannot succeed unless I can pay the cost of ending your resistance. A civilian-based nonviolent movement succeeds when it drives up the cost of suppressing the people to the point that a regime’s defenders are unwilling or unable to pay it.

THIS PROCESS is deliberate and systematic. First, a movement’s members must set aside their partisan, ethnic, or ideological differences and unify behind the goal of liberating the country from its oppressors. Then the movement has to reduce civilians’ fear of participating by first using nonviolent tactics entailing less physical risk, such as not paying taxes, work stay-aways, and commercial boycotts. This broadens a movement’s base, as it recruits people who won’t be violent but still want to act. Distributing the scope of resistance beyond the capital also strains the regime’s outermost, least reliable agents.

The movement also has to challenge the regime’s legitimacy. Tactics that tempt repression can force rulers to discredit themselves in the world’s eyes. That takes nonviolent discipline, to crystallize the meaning of the choice between the regime and the opposition.

Then more disruptive actions—such as a general strike or larger demonstrations—can be sequenced to make it hard for an oppressor to maintain the semblance of control. When it’s clear that nothing will be normal until the regime changes, even the military will begin to doubt the intelligence of endless obedience.

Finally, the movement has to anticipate repression and perhaps be ready to settle for intermediate goals, until its own strength is sufficient—it has to know when to buy time and when to reach for victory.

We are talking, of course, about staging a revolution. Thomas Jefferson believed that when a bad government could not be reformed, the people had a "right of revolution." He lived when nonviolent action was almost unknown as a political strategy, but he believed so strongly in the people’s prerogatives that he countenanced the idea of violent revolt. Having no attachment to violence, Jefferson, if he lived today, would embrace this right of bloodless resistance. And he would see its relationship to producing government genuinely based on the people’s consent.

Mohandas Gandhi often invoked the biblical maxim that "as you sow, so shall you reap"—that your achievement will reflect your methods. The history that Gandhi helped launch has confirmed that truth:

  • In the 1960s, African-Americans used sit-ins and marches to pull apart racial segregation—yielding more tolerance and justice, imperfect as it is, than seemed possible beforehand.

  • In Poland in 1980, workers used strikes to win the right to organize a free trade union, galvanizing the people to insist on fuller rights. When Solidarity took power, no one died.

  • In South Africa in the 1980s, blacks in townships and factories used boycotts and strikes until apartheid lost the support of business and outside interests, compelling a new president to negotiate.

  • In Serbia in 2000, a dictator was unseated after a nonviolent campaign liquefied the loyalty of the military—who refused his orders. Then a new, democratically chosen president took power.

"Nonviolence" may be a preferable form of behavior, but nonviolent action isn’t effective unless it is driven by a strategy to take power. Gandhi did not want to make peace with the British. He incited a conflict in order to force them out of India.

Some think the Indians prevailed because the British were gentlemen (as if the Amritsar massacre hadn’t happened). But that mistaken view reinforces another misconception: that violent oppressors can only be defeated with more violence. Yet there is no historical correlation between the degree of a regime’s brutality and its hold on power. Everyone believed that Saddam Hussein was impregnable because he’d kill anyone who dissented. So most Iraqis were afraid to act. However, the fear of action does not mean that action, once taken, will fail.

In 2002, an Iraqi opponent of Saddam said he liked nonviolent resistance, but that Saddam was like Stalin—therefore it wasn’t possible. He was asked what would happen if 5,000 people demonstrated in Baghdad. He said they’d all be shot. What if 20,000 should demonstrate? Same result, though much bloodier, he said. But what if 100,000 Iraqis should protest, demanding that Saddam go? He hesitated. Well, if that happened, he said, then things might go differently. Why? Because if that many Iraqis were determined to resist, the dictator’s defenders would realize that fear as an instrument of power no longer worked—that Saddam had lost control of the country. Suddenly an impervious regime had been reduced in this Iraqi’s mind to a strategic problem.

WHEN AMERICAN forces invaded, few Iraqi units were willing to defend Saddam. In a nation of 22 million, with hundreds of thousands in uniform, only an inner core of several thousand irregular fighters could be relied on. The very means by which Saddam had clung to power, his legendary savagery, had destroyed his internal support. If Iraqis had known how to organize and direct civilian-based resistance, and the same proportion of the population as joined movements elsewhere had participated, the regime likely would have collapsed almost as quickly as it did in the heat of war. As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, "When people decide they want to be free, there is nothing that can stop them"—not fear, not brutality, and not 5,000 fedayeen.

The continued presence of violent resisters in Iraq is a symptom of the present global crisis. Cadres of extreme fighters in terrorist and militant organizations have a proclivity for violence that evidence of its past futility cannot deter. There is no instance in the past century in which terror or violence created a society where political rights and prosperity resulted. So the promises behind violence are hollow. But new recruits are blind to its impotence—in part because the world’s news and entertainment media keep recirculating the myth that violence is the ultimate form of power.

Yet while the failures of education and broadcasting magnify political violence, correcting them is only part of the cure. Terrorist networks that target civilians would destroy the new global society now taking shape, and suppressing them may take military action in some cases. But if a natural, worldwide peace is our goal, we must all do more, rejecting the operational premise of terrorists: that success in a great struggle requires violence.

On Sept. 11, civilians in North America were killed in the name of liberating civilians from certain rulers in the Middle East. But none of the reviled rulers has been weakened, and the reprisal of war has been hurled at terrorists everywhere. The choice of violence as a method of struggle is irrational because it generates a contest in which violent groups are inferior: They are not as well armed as the states they attack. And if they were to use a weapon of mass destruction against an innocent city, the massive retaliation and global revulsion would doom their cause. Political violence always exacts a fatal cost from those who embrace it.

The conflict with terrorists is not just about the evil of their tactics. It is also about the political conditions they exploit. Terrorist organizations have been given haven and help by some authoritarian regimes, even as they struggle to overthrow others. In both ways, political oppressors are at the heart of the global crisis.

There are 40 to 45 despotic regimes in the world. They include cult-of-personality dictatorships as in North Korea and Cuba; one-party states like China and Syria; and military strong-men, corrupt oligarchies, and clerical hierarchies that dominate weak democracies. If they all vanished tomorrow, the swamp of terrorism would be largely drained—because weapons and hideouts would be harder to acquire, and the local oppression that terrorists decry in order to motivate their base would disappear.

THE WORLD has a choice: We can wait until an odious regime or terrorist group is poised on the brink of a new, more sweeping atrocity, and then support or oppose military action to prevent or react to the crime. Or we can internationalize and expedite the removal of all political oppression, while undermining the appeal of violence as a strategy of liberation. Unless the world wishes to cede to Washington the responsibility to respond physically to global threats of violence, it must act to end the political oppression at the root of the problem.

Fortunately, there is a proven way to capsize murderous regimes: strategic, civilian-based resistance. But we can no longer afford to wait for indigenous movements to engage in the trial-and-error process of locally reinventing nonviolent struggle and overcoming their oppressors. We have to help them succeed.

They don’t need enormous subsidies, and they don’t need Americans parachuting in to tell them what to do. Only indigenous movements have the legitimacy necessary to rally popular support. But to outmaneuver tyrants, many need training in the strategies of nonviolent action as well as better information technology. A nongovernmental, international body—not serving any nation’s interests, but pooling resources from many—should provide this help.

In the meantime, governments must ratchet up pressure on such regimes. For example, Burma’s military junta, which imprisoned the Nobel Prize-winning leader of its nonviolent opposition, still gets help from India, China, other Asian nations, and Western corporations doing business with Burma. Other dictatorships are also fortified by our detachment and our trade. Political oppression anywhere is now everyone’s business, because the violence it breeds can appear anywhere.

Just as St. Paul understood that his freedom was God-given, a natural right, the world is coming to acknowledge that rights are not conferred by states—they must be honored by states because they belong to individuals. Eventually it will be accepted everywhere that each person’s rights come before any ruler’s will and that no government is legitimate unless it is based on the people’s consent.

The day when that becomes a universal fact will not arrive until the world realizes that rights are won more surely by the people than by terrorists or armies. To make nonviolent struggle the global boulevard to political liberation, we must relentlessly propagate the ideas and strategies that pave its way to victory. Former president Jimmy Carter has said that "nonviolent valor can end oppression." But not until we all enlist to help the valiant.

Jack DuVall is director of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C., and co-author of A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. This article is adapted from the convocation speech given in August 2003 at Bluffton (Ohio) College.

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